Director Jeffrey Jeturian must have had a hell of a time enforcing “crowd control” on the set of the movie “Ekstra,” the top-grossing film in the recently-concluded “Cinemalaya” independent film festival.
“Ekstra” is now doing the commercial circuit and, judging from the late-evening audience at the Eastwood Cinemas, it should prove to be a modest mainstream hit as well.
There could only be one reason. It stars Vilma Santos, whose first “indie” movie this is. It’s difficult judging in these parts what exactly makes for an “indie” movie. True, “Ekstra” receives support now from distributor Star Cinema, but its initial funding came from the small outfit Quantum Films and Cinemalaya. Second, the film may buck the “commercial” trend, but it hedges its bets with guest appearances by such bankable stars as Piolo Pascual, Marianne Rivera, Richard Yap, and the mainstay villainess of countless soaps, Cherie Gil.
But in playing bit player Loida Malabanan, Santos certainly defies public expectations of the “Star of All Seasons.” In “Ekstra,” she is de-glamorized as a sugarcane field worker, a housemaid, a kidnap-victim stand-in, and a lawyer, though her venture in the last role is what young people today call an “epic fail.”
Beyond Ate Vi’s downmarket roles, though, what distinguishes “Ekstra” as an indie effort are the potshots scriptwriters Zig Dulay, Antoinette Jadaone (who wrote/directed another homage to bit players, “Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay”) and Jeturian aim squarely at the film and TV industry. It’s hard to imagine a major studio throwing millions into a film that mocks the system and lays bare the hierarchy, hypocrisy and greed behind the romantic soaps that promote the underdog at the expense of the country’s elite. But I guess the box-office potential of “Ekstra” was difficult to ignore—or disdain.
* * *
But to return to the extra effort it must have taken to enforce “crowd control” on the set. Through most of the film, Santos is surrounded by “extras” like Loida. Like Loida lusting for a “photo op” with a veteran star, the bit players surrounding Vilma must have been itching for a turn in front of a camera, even a humble cell phone camera, with the star. Why, if I were one of them, I would have been hard put trying not to stare at her as she delivered her lines.
Major kudos then to those “bit players” who managed to keep their poise and equanimity—and fully inhabit their roles—while acting out their own “roles of a lifetime” alongside a filmmaking legend like Vilma. I especially enjoyed the banter and ease between Loida and Doris, portrayed by Tart Carlos with street-wise charm, as they endure the boredom, arrogance and petty annoyances caused by the powers-that-be.
But it was Ruby Ruiz, portraying talent coordinator Ate Joyce, who was chosen by the jury as “Best Supporting Actress” in the Directors’ Showcase section of Cinemalaya. By turns acerbic, cynical and yet warmhearted, Ate Joyce is the petty bureaucrat equivalent of a production family, flexing what power she enjoys, enforcing discipline and tough love on the “talents” she has brought to the set.
* * *
Indeed, it is easy to read into “Ekstra” a microcosm of Philippine society. Much like the feudal arrangements soap operas mock, dissect and decry, the drama set is itself stratified into ossified layers, where the areas are strictly delineated for the powers-that-be: this is for the director and producer, here is where the stars can rest and relax, this is the area marked off by the caterers. Trying to find their place in the sun (or rather, away from the sun), the extras flit from place to place, only to be shooed away until they find a spot under a puny tree where they lay down their mats, take quick naps, and wait to be summoned for their turns before the cameras.
Relationships are just as hierarchical. The producer is responsible for keeping within the budget, trimming expenses and haranguing the director to complete his scenes which will be aired later that night. In turn, the director hides in his tent, yelling instructions to the camera operators and haranguing in turn his assistant director who must keep the talents in check and “in the moment.” The AD keeps his ire reserved for the script assistant, the continuity guy, the set designer, even the wardrobe assistant, whenever something goes wrong. And the talent coordinator keeps an eagle eye on the bit players she has gathered.
And the extras themselves? They may be friends but they are also fierce competitors, jostling for any additional role or lines that may come up. Truly delightful is the scene in which Loida and Doris compete for the privilege of playing a walk-on role as a maid, each one trumping the other with ever-more melodramatic acting moments.
* * *
We laughed and guffawed at such acting antics, scenes both startling and familiar, stereotypical of TV soaps, with lines we have even come to memorize.
But watch out for sly, self-referential moments. When Doris tries to discourage Loida from nursing dreams of eventual stardom, she makes mention of the “typical” talents who make it big in the biz: tall, fair with sharp noses. “But what about Nora Aunor?” asks Loida, to which Doris grants grudging assent.
That the line is uttered by Vilma Santos, who for decades has been forced into a running competition against the “Superstar,” is all the more delicious. In fact, Jeturian, in an interview, admits that “Ekstra” could kick-start once more the legendary rivalry between the two. If so, I as a fan of both welcome such a development. As movie audiences we could be in for a rich and satisfying round of out-of-the-box roles for the still-reigning queens of local cinema.